A Traveler Comes to a Bridge

An essay that accompanies the exhibition “Positively 4th Street: An Encounter with Los Angeles Viaduct,” with artwork by Roderick Smith and Richard Willson on display at the Don B. Huntley Gallery, Cal Poly Pomona, through April 12, 2018.

Fourth Street Viaduct looking northwest, 2001 (National Archives, Historic American Engineering Record

Fourth Street Viaduct looking northwest, 2001 (National Archives, Historic American Engineering Record

You are looking west from the white bluff of Boyle Heights, to opposite bluffs, backlit by an autumn sunset, mid-October 1877.[1] A panorama of green shadow—grape vines and fruit trees in apple-pie order—fills the valley below, tessellated by farm roads and a rail line that binds the right bank of the river to its left and Los Angeles only recently to the rest of America.[2] Northwest of the bluffs, between the mesa of East Los Angeles and the lip of Reservoir Ravine, thick with white sage and thyme, a ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains that rises behind the city is split by a gap. The Los Angeles River runs through it. Sycamores and laurels step down to the stream. Willows and tule reeds touch the water. Herons wade for fingerling trout and toads that will one day give Frogtown its nickname.

South of here, the Los Angeles River is slower, wider, braiding, making and unmaking gravel islands, and wandering into and out of orchards and vineyards and finally out of anyone’s caring. There is no Fourth Street descending from the heights to the east bank of the river with its own orchards and rows of vines. There is no Fourth Street Bridge across the river.

The falling afternoon light strikes the cupola opposite of the new high school on Fort Moore Hill.[3] It strikes the cross on the new Cathedral of Saint Vibiana and the tower of the county courthouse. The valley is filling with night. The city’s 136 gas streetlights are being lit.[4] Still in sight are the three bridges that finger across the river: a railroad trestle northward, and southward the Aliso Street Bridge. Between them, a slab sided, pitch roofed, wooden bridge, lit with kerosene lamps, stolidly crosses at the river’s narrowest point. No one calls it the Macy Street Bridge. It is just the “covered bridge.”[5]

From the crest of Boyle Heights all of this is visible—bridges, ridge, river, roads—even the loom of Catalina Island, like a band of fog on the southern horizon. It is near the end of that time when all of Los Angeles can be taken in one long glance.

February 16, 1887, looking south from the trestle of the Southern Pacific Railroad, every river crossing, except for the covered bridge at Macy Street, has been damaged by yesterday’s storm. Part of the trestle fell during the night. A stone bulwark, put up last year, collapsed. The trestle of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad stands, but a hundred feet of its western approach washed away. The eastern end of the Downey Avenue bridge went into “a howling chasm” when the riverbank was undermined. A thousand feet of levee further south is gone. The foot of the Aliso Street Bridge disappeared, a hundred feet of streetcar track, “still attached to the western stump of the…  bridge, trails disconsolately down the river.” Gaps, with the river running through, separate the western and eastern ends of the First Street Bridge from solid ground. Without all of its bridges, western Los Angeles is nearly cut off. Although the storm passed this morning, at 4:30 a.m. the “hoarse roar of the river, audible all over the city,” continued to frighten residents.[6]

They had good reason to be frightened. The river had flooded in winters of 1782, 1811, 1814, 1825, 1851, and 1861. After the flood of 1867-1868, water lay over the Cahuenga Valley for weeks, with the hills of west Los Angeles like islands in a sea. Flooding in 1876, 1884, and 1886 (with several deaths) began the river’s channelization that will try to confine it to an “official bed” (which is only some lines drawn on a map).[7]

The river will flood again in 1891, 1898, 1914, 1917, 1921, 1924, 1927, and 1934 (killing 40 in La Cañada). It will flood catastrophically in 1938 (killing forty-five in Los Angeles alone). Even after 1938, when concreting the channel begins, portions of the Los Angeles River will flood in 1943, 1956, 1969, 1978, 1980, 1983, and 1995 (eventually killing a total of twelve in all).

December 4, 1891, looking north from the First Street Bridge, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times pauses in his streetcar tour of Los Angeles.[8] Above him is Boyle Heights, “on a high mesa which terminates in a bluff, at the foot of which the river formerly ran.” This, he tells his readers, is the city’s most “airy and healthy residence section.” Elevation, he says, is important from “a hygienic point of view.”

An elevated point of view is important because of the persistent flooding of the Los Angeles River, something the reporter leaves out of his description. The heights are doubly “hygienic” because their uneasy residents are safely across the river from the tenements of Sonoratown and Chinatown, and the immigrant Italian and Russian neighborhoods around the old plaza.

The reporter has one regret as his tour of the city ends (and he will not be the last to feel it). “Much of Los Angeles is almost a terra incognita to many of our residents, in spite of the fact that rapid and frequent transit has to a great extent annihilated distance.” The reporter takes a last look at Boyle Heights. “The large brick building on the crest of the bluff, which is almost as prominent a landmark as the high school and the courthouse, is the Catholic orphan asylum. The rays of the setting sun cause the gilt cross on its summit to shine out like the evening star.”

The Fourth Street Viaduct in 1905 combined wood trestles with girder trusses. (Photo courtesy of Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The Fourth Street Viaduct in 1905 combined wood trestles with girder trusses. (Photo courtesy of Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

January 12, 1905, looking east from the newly built Fourth Street Viaduct, the members of the city council’s bridge committee (here to approve the work) can see the trees of Prospect Place and the houses along the crest of Boyle Heights. At their feet is acreage to be developed, now that the carriageway of the new viaduct connects the heights to the downtown business district.

It had taken ten years of political pressure by Isaac Van Nuys, Moses Sherman, James Lankershim, William Workman, and other men with a stake in real estate to engineer the transformation of this acreage into house lots and storefronts. Workman, former mayor and now city treasurer, had reminded the members of the bridge committee that the river lacked a vehicle and pedestrian crossing between First and Seventh Streets, a distance of a mile, and those who live in Boyle Heights and beyond “were of necessity greatly inconvenienced.” The lack of a bridge greatly inconvenienced Workman. The profitable development of his fifty-five acres of floodplain below Boyle Heights depended on building the Fourth Street Viaduct. Workman depended on the sale of lots to wipe out years of debt.

It had taken some weeks of city council politics to get construction of the viaduct started. The sale of municipal bonds in 1903 had raised $100,000, which was not enough to repair old bridges and build a new one. The city engineer advised city councilmen to spend the bond revenue on repairs. He was skeptical of the proposed Fourth Street Viaduct. “It winds around like a snake, and I doubt if it would be satisfactory if finished,” he complained. The councilmen traded votes, cut appropriations for the promised bridge repairs, and the city engineer was overruled.

It had taken the J. D. Mercereau Company seven months to build the viaduct. The footings of the western end lay at Santa Fe Street, followed by 200 feet of wood trestle connecting to five wood and steel spans over the railroad tracks on the west bank and 300 feet of steel truss to cross the river, plus another 500 feet of wood trestle over more tracks to reach the edge of Boyle Heights where Workman’s acreage waited to be developed.

The new Fourth Street Viaduct is 2,000 feet long. It has a six-foot-wide footpath for pedestrians who now have slightly more than a mile walk from Boyle Heights to reach the freight depots, warehouses, and factories that crowd the western bank of the river. The viaduct has a twenty-foot-wide carriageway for farm wagons and shays, and increasingly also for motorcars.[9] The Tourist, the first automobile to be manufactured in Los Angeles,[10] is the most popular; 2,692 will be built between 1902 and 1910. The new bridge across the river is paralleled a few feet away by its twin—the Los Angeles Traction Company’s steel trusses erected in 1898. The spindly supports and thin girders of the two bridges—emblems of an unpretentious, readymade aesthetic—will soon be described as ugly.

Beneath the tracery of wood and steel beams, the river sprawls. Dry most of the year, the riverbed is a tumult of sand ridges and gravel flats, some of them mined to make concrete for the tall buildings that have begun to crowd Broadway. At the foot of Boyle Heights, the bed of the river is a dump where the city’s garbage and its trash are hauled, some of it to be set afire, the rest to be raked through by the hogs that belong to a Mr. Clemmons. He sells the hogs to the city’s abattoirs. The city’s butchers sell the pork as “the finest corn-fed.”[11]

Study for "4th Street Bridge." Roderick Smith, 2017

Study for "4th Street Bridge." Roderick Smith, 2017

A traveler comes to a bridge. As the traveler starts to cross, one foot is still earth bound. Empty space is beneath the other. The next step requires trust. The traveler is uplifted less by concrete or masonry and more by forces kept in balance with the void waiting below. The bridge seems static, but every footfall must be absorbed, its effects distributed by tension or resisted by compression. The bridge responds. Its span springs to the traveler’s step in order to seem unmoved.

The traveler is unimpressed by the daring that manages hidden forces to make it possible to walk above the earth. The traveler prefers to see a sculptural gesture, a vault from known to unknown, and a hope. But a bridge also marks faithfulness and a constraint. Mid-stride, the traveler cannot veer off the bridge to wander along the green bank of the river passing under. The traveler cannot choose a new path of desire. No meanderings on a bridge. The traveler can only depart from one commonplace and return to another—mid-span, exposed at the space in between. There is no refuge on a bridge. A fleeing traveler can only run back to what was left or run toward whatever is ahead.

The traveler pauses, leans against the parapet, and takes in the elevated view. A bridge affords perspective but also detachment. What happens under the bridge happens without the traveler’s intervention. Water flows or trains pass or cars make their way below. Above, the traveler is more than suspended. Daydreams of flight await on a bridge. So do nightmares of vertigo, of falling, and of suicide. The bridge itself is vulnerable if the balanced forces that keep it standing shift. Every bridge is uneasy. If a bridge falls, what seemed a trivial gap becomes a barrier again, and the landscape the bridge assembled disconnects. Overcome a bridge, and communities at either end are estranged. A bridge is a promise that a broken world can be whole.

(Although every bridge inevitably goes somewhere, not every bridge is necessary. Mere connection is not sufficient reason to build a bridge. Sometimes separation is better.)

The traveler knows only the upper half of a bridge. Unlike most structures, bridges have an above and a below that are intimately joined, but separate, places. Rising from its piers is a different bridge, secretly and elegantly utilitarian. The footloose traveler could abandon the bridge’s flow and settle underneath with others who have given up progress toward the destination imposed on those overhead. Instead of support, the poetic interconnection of uprights, struts, and parabolas arching overhead—beauty more legible to the homeless and the urban forager—could be shelter. The traveler could exchange a vista on top of the bridge for an encampment under it.

Instead, the attractive force of the opposite end of the bridge—its constant offer of novelty—leads the traveler on a contradictory path, perpendicular to the events and possibilities under the traveler’s feet. The bridge has taken the traveler to a phenomenological encounter only to take the traveler from it.

The public demands a harmonious and graceful design, Louis Huot tells readers of Architect and Engineer magazine.[12] Huot is a member of the city’s Department of Public Works under Chief Engineer of Bridges Merrill Butler. (Butler will oversee the engineering of six river crossings between 1924 and 1932. Huot will design the ornamental features for most of them.)[13] The only public that Huot finds demanding are the five appointed members of the city’s Municipal Art Commission. The commissioners’ goal is “to work for the gradual elimination of ugliness,”[14] and the humble wood trestles and girder trusses over the Los Angeles River are “about as ugly as they can be.”[15]

The commissioners feel that a better Los Angeles can be evoked through civic architecture in the classical style. City Engineer John A. Griffin agrees. The character of these bridges “will be such as to excite comment from visitors who enter and leave Los Angeles,” Griffin tells the city council in 1923. They will “raise the status of Los Angeles as an enterprising, properly developed city.”[16]

It is an extraordinary epoch, defined by bridges. The Los Angeles Times, the Automobile Club of Southern California, and the railroads persuaded voters (many of them new motorists) that replacing narrow trestles and truss bridges would relieve traffic congestion and give the city monuments to its ambitions. With new bonds approved, eleven improved river crossings are built: Ninth Street in 1925, Macy Street and Franklin Avenue in 1926, Fletcher Drive in 1927, Fourth Street over Lorena Street and North Spring Street in 1928, Glendale-Hyperion in 1929, and now the Fourth Street river crossing, begun in 1930 and finished two months ahead of schedule. (Still to come are bridges at Washington Boulevard in 1931, Sixth Street in 1932, Figueroa Street in 1937, and Riverside Drive in 1938.)

These improvements are made for an accelerating regime of speed. “These bridges, especially over a stream of this character, should seem as little like bridges… and as much as possible like improved bits of street,” landscape architect Charles Mulford Robinson had told the city council.[17] A bridge should be “conformable to the automobile which it carries across the chasm,” according to Huot.[18] They are horizontal monuments for a horizontal city.

The material of ambition—of monumentality and liberated movement—is the steel-reinforced concrete of the arches that supports the bridge decks and in the pylons, parapets, light standards, brackets, and balusters that decorate their roadways. Mixed on site, the concrete is poured into temporary wooden forms over supporting wood framing called falsework. Smoothed, the concrete will look like well-finished limestone. In less visible parts, after the concrete has set, the impression of the forms will be left as they are. Parallel ridges the length of individual boards and the knots and grain in the wood will still be visible, a permanent shadow.

Huot’s design vocabulary comes from imperial Rome, Renaissance Italy and Spain, and the Paris of Louis Napoleon. Nearly all the new bridges are variations on the classical tradition, except for the Fourth Street Viaduct, where the design is Gothic Revival.[19]

Wooden forms (in any shape a carpenter can fit together), poured concrete, and the conservative aesthetics of the Municipal Art Commission have made monuments of desire out of utilitarian bridges over the city’s problematic river.

Study for "4th Street Bridge," Richard Willson, 2017

Study for "4th Street Bridge," Richard Willson, 2017

What nature divided has been brought together, David Faries of the Los Angeles Traffic Association tells the women of the Hollenbeck Ebell Club, who are waiting on the new Fourth Street Viaduct for speeches about progress to end. A locomotive whistle interrupts. The Playgrounds Department band waits to play “Sidewalks of New York” with its refrain about “east side, west side, all around the town.” Officials from the three railroads that pass under the approaches to the bridge are next to speak, happy now that the last wood and girder viaduct over their tracks is gone. Celebratory banners hang from the catenary wires that carry the electrical grid powering the streetcars that share the viaduct with pedestrians and motorists. Dedication day—Thursday, July 30, 1931—is overcast and hot.[20]

Nature’s divide, for Faries, refers to the Los Angeles River, bracketed with earthen levees but not yet bound in concrete, hummocked with sand mounds, dusty most of every year but prone to sudden flooding, and no longer a city dump.

The river is the least of the bridge’s concerns. Most of the 2,700-foot length of elevated viaduct from Molino Street to Anderson Street at the foot of Boyle Heights crosses two industrial roadways and a braid of rail lines connected to repair shops, freight yards, and passenger terminals. The bridge itself, supported on graceful, open spandrel arches that leave the west bank of the river to touch down at what had been William Workman’s fifty-five acres, is only 254 feet long. Just as the city engineer in 1903 had warned, the new viaduct snakes through a tangled section of riverside street grid, splits in two at its western end (anticipating street alignments that will not happen), and bends as it reaches the foot of Boyle Heights to connect with Fourth Street.

Although every bridge inevitably goes somewhere, not every bridge is necessary. Mere connection is not sufficient reason to build a bridge. Sometimes separation is better.

Seen from the air, the viaduct appears uncertain about its start and uneasy about where it must end. Fourth Street on the west side of the river angles southeast, generally conforming to the 36 degrees of disorientation in the city’s colonial street grid. Fourth Street on the Boyle Heights side angles northeast. The two ends of Fourth Street, offset where they should face each other across the river, cannot be made to line up, as if the western and eastern parts of Los Angeles were never meant to be in one city.

The division was not natural, and the viaduct’s sinuous geometry could not overcome the forces keeping the halves of Los Angeles separate. A report sent to the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank in 1939 will explain why. Boyle Heights “is a ‘melting pot’ area and is literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements. It is hazardous residential territory….”[21] The Fourth Street Viaduct seems to have something to say, but none of the Los Angeles papers will ever ask residents of Boyle Heights what message to them the imposing new viaduct is intended to carry.

There is a long flight of steps that takes pedestrians up from Santa Fe Avenue to a streetcar stop where the western end of the viaduct splits to drop one leg down to Mateo Street while the other leg bends further west and north. After the dedication, streetcar passengers will stand there, in the middle of the roadway in a rectangle of white lines painted on the new asphalt. Motorcars will pass on either side while streetcar passengers wait within the white lines of the “safety zone.” The speed limit for motorcars is twenty-five miles an hour.[22]

The streetcar fare is seven cents.[23] 1931 is the second year of the Depression, and not many workmen have seven cents to spare. Some of them will continue to walk from homes in Boyle Heights to jobs in the rail yards, factories, and warehouses between First and Sixth streets along the river. When those men, lucky to still have a job, return in the evening over the Fourth Street Viaduct, one or two might pause to rest on one of the small benches that Louis Huot placed on either side of several of the light standards that spire from the parapet railing. The resting men probably no longer notice, in the fading golden light, the decorative elements that Huot had cast in concrete and made to be appreciated at twenty-five miles an hour.

Evergreen Cemetery is at the end of the streetcar line that the Fourth Street Viaduct in 1931 carries over the river—Main Street to Third Street, east to Traction Avenue, a south on Merrick Street, another turn at Fourth Street, across the river to Fresno Street in Boyle Heights, north to First Street, and then a stop at the cemetery gates.[24] The dead could take this way by streetcar; two had been available for charter, specially designed to carry a coffin in a separate vestibule, screened by a stained glass panel, while mourners sat beyond in silence.[25] More recently, automobile corteges cross the river with their burdens and turn off Fourth Street to Evergreen Avenue and the cemetery. A solitary driver arrives by the same route to walk among the headstones to find one and leave flowers.

The new bridges and viaducts Merrill Butler and his engineers have built north of Fourth Street allude to an antique imperial grandeur, confirming with reinforced concrete that the westward course of empire had arrived triumphantly at its destination. The style of the Fourth Street Viaduct is different and solemn in its Gothic Revival details. The pylons at each end of the bridge evoke a memorial cenotaph. Their lancet openings suggest the entrance to a nave. The columns of the light standards, which support the catenary lines of the streetcar power grid, rise above an acanthus leaf capital to taper like the finals atop a medieval cathedral. They intend to lead the eye heavenward. The frames of the streetlight lanterns are banded by a row of primroses, topped by flourishes in the form of leaves, and crowned with a final that could be mistaken for a cross. The parapets lining the viaduct are decorated with alternating equilateral triangles. A trefoil opening pierces each; its three-part shape represents stylized leaves of clover. Both triangles and trefoils are reminders of the 3-in-1 of the Christian Trinity.[26] The Fourth Street Viaduct crosses the Los Angeles River with a pastiche of ecclesiastical architecture and Christian iconography.

The mourner crossing to Evergreen Cemetery by streetcar and the businessman bound for Montebello or Whittier by automobile see one bridge. The train passenger below sees another. The mourner and the driver see a road that rises only slightly at the river crossing, framed by the four pylons. The passenger sees, as the train slows on arrival or picks up speed on departure, a regular pattern of arching ribs overhead, uprights connecting the bridge’s deck to the arches, and cross members connecting the arches to each other. Above is somber decoration, the simplified memories of somewhere else made tangible. Below is structure with no past, beautiful in its economical management of invisible forces.

There is something else to see, perhaps best understood by the occasional pedestrian who pauses to lean against the parapet or sit on one of the small benches. Nearly every outward facing surface, above and below, in the penetrating light of Los Angeles, is patterned with areas of sun-struck brightness and bands and panels of knife-edged shadow. In the moving light, while the pedestrian watches, the surface of the concrete moves too, projections dripping shadows, moldings shedding darkness over plane surfaces, incised grooves stacking alternating white and black bars, changes in profile edged by shadow declaring the three dimensions of pillar, pilaster, corbel, and column.

The Fourth Street Viaduct, gleaming in the sunlight in 1931, is a bright thing for a city that wishes to be only white. As the shadows pass over it, it finds its life in the absence of whiteness.

Final Positively 4th Street FB Cover-01.jpg

Empty in 2018 except for a stream of processed wastewater[27] in the low-flow slot that perfectly centers its concrete floor, the Los Angeles River passes beneath the bridge that barely interrupts the almost level deck of the Fourth Street Viaduct. Belvederes, set into the arches of the sentinel pylons that mark the bridge’s place, overlook an engineered void. In the months with no rain, under a sky the color of dried urine, the river is a mirror that reflects the city’s disregard of it. Given two or three days of winter rain, however, the river will carry four times the flow of the Colorado, and dark water, passing with the speed of a freight train, will reach up the slopes of the channel.[28] The river is an artifact of desire as much as the bridges that span it.

What Los Angeles sought, after its river was crossed at Fourth Street by rail and highway viaducts, is hard to discern. For William Workman, the ambition might have been marketable real estate; for city planners, to untangle a transportation grid; for the railroads, to secure uninterrupted approaches to the city; and for downtown business associations, to ensure the daily flow of workers and shoppers. Each of them, in different ways, wanted a city of greatness to satisfy the demands of their desire. They constrained a river because of them and built bridges to make the fulfillment of their dreams seem inevitable. (In the name of other desires, this image has begun to change, as the river channel northward is restored and as parts of its floodplain are reclaimed by parks.)[29]

Evergreen Cemetery is the furthest Los Angeles extended across the Boyle Heights mesa. The future was not in the modest houses and two-story shops along Fourth Street as it rose to the crest of the bluff. The future was south of downtown and then west, away from the threat of the river and beyond the historical claims the old plaza made. East of the river is where the city housed its lepers and syphilitics, where its orphans were asylumed; where the city sent its aged and infirmed, and where its paupers are still cremated and buried in a mass grave as each year ends.[30] East is where the city has sent its dead, not just to Evergreen Cemetery, but to the Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries (where lodge brothers lay together companionably), and to the cemeteries (segregated by prejudice and theology), for Catholics, Serbians, Chinese, and Jews.

The viaduct’s Gothic Revival details were intended to inspire melancholy recollection in 1931, although they were not generally the memories of the multi-ethnic communities of Boyle Heights, dispersing even then into a second generation of diasporas. (Did sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants, returning at the yahrzeit, notice that the way to Mount Zion cemetery and Home of Peace was now marked by remembrances of English cathedrals?) In 1939, federal housing surveyors, as a warning to lenders, redlined all of racially mixed Boyle Heights. In the 1950s, the California Department of Transportation, taking advantage of redlining, began cutting rights-of-way along the bluff that the Mexican residents of Los Angeles in the 1830s had called, because of its whiteness, the Paradón Planco.[31] Freeways replaced rows of wood-frame houses where Russians, Italians, Japanese, Latinos, and Jews had lived together and left together for work across the Fourth Street Viaduct. In 2017, and mostly Latino now, the community of Boyle Heights remembers the freeways’ dislocation and the indifference behind it.[32] East has been what the city, in its haste toward the future, chooses not to remember.

The Fourth Street Viaduct bears desires across railroad tracks, across access roads, across the blank surface of the Los Angeles River channel, and across time. Some are desires you may not recognize today or want anymore. But the viaduct cannot do otherwise, or be other than what it is, so well made was it, with skill and an eye toward the effect of its repeating elements of arch and trefoil, pylon and spire, light and shadow. These elements, which framed the city’s aspirations in 1931, are still available today as a borrowed elegy for a city full of anxieties about its place.

The contained river below and the stylish viaduct above were intended to be monuments of Anglo triumph over nature and space, achievements that need thoughtful translation if we are to bridge the abyss made by the city’s subsequent erasures of memory. Recovery of the commonplace is sensuous: the sight, smell, sound, and touch of things that might be the prelude to an embrace or a blow, that might make us cringe at their maker’s motivations, that might require humility—even love—instead of fury or contempt when considering the history of these things. Crossing over a bridge is risky.

A traveler comes to this bridge, an articulate framework suspended between its past and our future, to cross over its consort river that divides Boyle Heights from the Arts District. The number of pedestrians is fewer now, and the passengers waiting for streetcars are gone. A Metrolink train rumbles under one of the viaduct’s arches. A tree, rooted within or under the roadway deck, tops the parapet where it crosses Santa Fe Avenue.

A homeless man is living on the belvedere that projects from the arch of the first pylon as the bridge prepares to leap east. A shopping cart and plastic sheeting make a barrier in front. The sidewalk here is only five feet wide, and the footing is uneasy because the metal grates that provide access to conduits under the sidewalk are uneven. Pearly grit, enough to support a few shoots of grass, has gathered along the parapet edge as if a slow-moving river had passed over the bridge, dropping silt. The belvedere beneath the arch of the opposite pylon stinks of urine. The streetlight lanterns here are missing glass panels, so only the skeletal arch remains in the metal frame. Time and the vandalism of indifference both work on the Fourth Street Viaduct every day, which is part of the pathos of things in our lives. Yet insulators for the streetcar wires on the light standard next to the pylon and a catenary holdfast over the arch remain as the viaduct’s memories of itself, not yet erased. The banister under the traveler’s hand has the feel of stucco. The thread of water in the low-flow slot below glints and murmurs. The advent of something terrible or beautiful seems to be near. Some birds wheel overhead.

In 1998, the Fourth Street Bridge was retrofitted to improve the lateral stability of its arches in an earthquake.[33] In 2014, the National Bridge Inventory of the Federal Highway Administration determined that the entire Fourth Street Viaduct met the “minimum tolerable limits to be left in place as is,” although the geometry of its roadway deck is “basically intolerable.” The report added that the viaduct is “functionally obsolete.”[34]


[1] This description is based on Brooklyn Land and Building Company, “View of Los Angeles from the East,” 1877.

[2] Connection to the transcontinental rail network (through San Francisco) began in September 1876.

[3] The high school was completed in 1873, the cathedral in 1876.

[4] City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting, “History,”, http://bsl.lacity.org/history.html, accessed December 8, 2017.

[5] Water and Power Associates, “Historical Notes,” http://waterandpower.org/museum/Early_City_Views%20(1900%20-%201925)_5_of_8.html, accessed December 8, 2017.

[6] “The Storm: The Situation of Yesterday Fully Set Forth,” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1887, 1.

[7] Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001). Gumprecht details episodes of flooding along the Los Angeles River through the 1990s.

[8] “Ten Years: The Story of a Decade,” Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1891, 1.

[9] City council’s bridge committee; 2000 foot length; “Big Bridge Accepted,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1905, 14. Bridge advocates; of necessity greatly inconvenienced; “More Interest in Los Angeles Real Estate,” Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1901, 7. Not enough to repair; it winds around like a snake; “Calls It a Steal: Kern Fights for Fourth Street Bridge,” Los Angeles Herald, July 19, 1903, 8. Sale of land benefits Workman, “Bridge Street Tract Sold, Los Angeles Herald, September 20, 1903, 1. Construction details, “Plans for Fourth Street Bridge,” Los Angeles Herald, October 8, 1903, 14. City council politics; “To Submit Plans for New Bridges,” Los Angeles Herald, January 3, 1904, 6.

[10] Some references claim 5,000 automobiles were produced between 1902 and 1910. The lower total is cited by the Los Angeles Almanac, “First Production Motor Vehicles in California,” http://www.laalmanac.com/transport/tr10a.php, accessed December 8, 2017.

[11] “City’s Garbage Turned into the Pork We Eat,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1906, 13.

[12] Louis L. Huot, “Modern Lines Are Reflected in New Los Angeles Viaduct,” Architect and Engineer (October 1933): 27.

[13] Stephen D. Mikesell, “The Los Angeles River Bridges: A Study in the Bridge as a Civic Monument,” Southern California Quarterly 68 (1986): 365-86. Mikesell describes both the engineering and the aesthetics of Merrill Butler’s bridge program.

[14] “Art Commission to Beautify City,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1903, 2.

[15] Charles Mulford Robinson, “The City Beautiful: Suggestions,” in Los Angeles, California (Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission, 1909), 3.

[16] Engineering Department, Annual Report (City of Los Angeles, 1923), 30.

[17] Robinson, “Suggestions,” 3.

[18] Huot, “Modern Lines,” 26.

[19] Merrill Butler, “Architecture and Engineering Are Harmonized in Fourth St. Viaduct.” Southwest Builder and Contractor (August 7, 1931): 50.

[20] “Fourth Street Span Dedicated,” Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1931, 1.

[21] Home Owners Loan Corporation City Survey Files, “Area D-53, Los Angeles” (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1939), 7, quoted in George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 137.

[22] Al Parmenter, “Change in Motor Law Goes in Effect Friday,” Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1931, 1.

[23] Laurence M. Benedict, “No Review on Fares,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 1930, 1.

[24] “Route Map of the Los Angeles Railway,” 1934.

[25] The Descanso (Spanish for “rest”) was built by the Los Angeles Railway in 1911, followed by the Paraiso. Descanso and Paraiso would often make as many as seven trips a day. The service ended in 1921. See City Lab, “A Funeral Car Named ‘Descanso’ or When Death Rode the Rails in America,” https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2013/05/funeral-car-named-descanso-or-when-death-rode-rails-america/5478/, accessed December 9, 2017.

[26] William Durandus, The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments, ed. John Mason Neale and Benjamin Webb (Leeds: T. W. Green, 1843): lxli.

[27] About 20 million gallons of treated wastewater are discharged into the Los Angeles River each day from the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys.

[28] Joe Mozingo, “Watery Giant Roars to Life,” Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2016, 1.

[29] For the status of river restoration and associated riverside improvements, see “Los Angeles River Revitalization,” http://lariver.org/.

[30] Doug Smith and Ryan Menezes, “Evergreen Cemetery is Awash in History and Drowning in Blight, Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2014, 12.

[31] George J. Sánchez. “What’s Good for Boyle Heights Is Good for the Jews: Creating Multiracialism on the Eastside during the 1950s,” American Quarterly 56 (2004): 634.

[32] Eric Jaffe, “The Forgotten History of L.A.’s Failed Freeway Revolt,” CityLab https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2014/07/the-forgotten-history-of-las-failed-freeway-revolt/374843/, accessed December 9, 2017. The residents of Boyle Heights today are concerned about further loss of their community identity as the process of gentrification in the downtown core reaches crosses the river.

[33] National Park Service, Historic American Engineering Record, Fourth Street Viaduct, HAER No. CA-280 (National Archives, Washington D.C., n.d.), 7.

[34] Extracted from the National Bridge Inventory, July 2014 inspection data at https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/bridge/nbi.cfm.

D. J. Waldie is the author of six books of non-fiction dealing with aspects of everyday life, including Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. His commentaries on California history and politics have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesThe New York Times, and additional essays can be found at KCET’s website (https://www.kcet.org/author/d-j-waldie).

Interpreter of Dreams: On the Passing of Kevin Starr of California

A kind of yahrzeit candle, somewhat changed from the original essay, published at KCET.org on January 16, 2017 shortly after Starr’s sudden death.
Kevin Starr in 1973. Photo courtesy of the Loyola Marymount University Archives

Kevin Starr in 1973. Photo courtesy of the Loyola Marymount University Archives

He would probably have preferred the honorific “Kevin Starr of San Francisco,” the city he loved most for its ebullient eccentricities and its food and drink. Kevin Starr – historian, teacher, mentor, former city and state librarian, raconteur, and Catholic – was brilliant in the way that San Francisco can be brilliant. But Starr, who died at 76 on Saturday, was larger in his embrace than one iconic Californian city. His affections included Los Angeles as well, although some in his immense circle of San Franciscan friends wondered at that disloyalty. He even included Sacramento – at least, its political part – among the places where he found that becoming Californian could have a transcendent meaning.

Our state – of mind, of landscapes, of dreams – had been his defining subject, just as the state of California itself had shaped and defined Starr, who endured abandonment and poverty in his childhood and who knew the state’s post-war efflorescence into greatness and who wondered where this life of his had come from and to what purpose.

In a magisterial series of narrative histories, beginning with Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915, Starr found answers to his need to know what, in becoming Californian, he had gained and lost.

For us, Starr illuminated all the ways in which the Californian experience spoke to – and about – the American experiment in place making. California was exceptional for Starr, but not “the great exception,” so unique that its story, gaudy and strange, offered nothing but ironic entertainment. California was not, for Starr, an island off the coast of American history.

His loyalty to California as a civilization in the making has been criticized as boosterish, but that misinterprets what was essential to Starr – his faith.

It was faith in the possibility that ordinary, flawed lives might assemble a community of worth. It was faith in the possibility that popular democracy might sustain public habits of justice, reconciliation, and mutual support. It was equally faith in history telling, whose purpose Starr believed to be the formation of a moral imagination.

Starr accepted the convention that the idea of California would forever be connected to dreams, along with the implication that Californian longing was merely a dream, merely desire for meaning without substance or consequence. But Starr’s use of “the dream” – as something that might be manifested by Californian desire – was his way of secularizing another aspect of his faith – his belief in the Incarnation, in the mystery of the divine turned into flesh, or, as one of his titles puts it, in the incarnation of “material dreams.”

The maintenance of California as place where longings might be assuaged and memories preserved, Starr imagined to be a kind of civil sacrament. That faith led him to constant engagement with Californians – as a teacher (most recently at USC), as an essayist in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, as the State Librarian, and as a political advisor to three California governors.

Starr believed in a California that was equally promise, commonwealth, and redemption, but California tested his faith. The state he grew up in – a state of big ambitions and even bigger public works – grew less convincing as a model following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the communal violence of the 1992 Rodney King riots, the hollowing out of the state’s blue-collar industries, and the coarsening of political discourse. “California is everything and nothing at all,” Starr wrote in the Chronicle in 2003. “It is the cutting edge of the American dream – a utopia. But it could also become the paradigm of the dream lost – a nightmare dystopia.” Starr knew that nightmares have always accompanied dreamers.

But in his introductory note to Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, the last book (chronologically) in his California history series, published in 2004, Starr wrote that it would be “seductively easy” to “see California as one vast failed experiment. But if I succumbed to this temptation, I would not be seeing the full truth about California and its people.” Starr still believed that binding “the shattered fragments of my neglected and incoherent youth” to the character of this place, “I could find in, with, and through California, some measure of meaning.”

That balanced “some measure” characterized Starr, whose affection for California was tempered by his knowledge of the tragedies of becoming Californian. Yet he still saw in the habits of Californians meaning that was worth conserving and memories – both painful and bright – that Californians should not forget.

Without Kevin Starr now, we must consider the meaning of California and measure our distance from the dream’s realization by reading Starr’s books, beginning with Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 and continuing with Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era, Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963, and ending with Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge.

In all, Starr published more than a dozen books, most recently Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience, which he intended to be the start of a new series. Erudite, graceful, and accessible, his paragraphs took shape, he once said, as naturally as “a form of breathing.” There was spirit in that breath. There is conviction also, both political and moral, along with humor and a Shakespearean insight into the follies and grandeurs, the crimes and heroisms, of exemplary Californians. He did not think that storytelling – mere storytelling to critics fonder of historical theory than of lives – was work too humble for a historian.

Many years ago, Kevin Starr reviewed my own attempt at telling the stories of my place in California. He was very generous. We later shared public platforms, op-ed pages, drinks, and more stories. His kindnesses to me are beyond numbering. I saw him last in October 2016, as I waited to speak to a student colloquium at USC. He was full of conversation (as he always was). It is my loss and a loss to Californians that the conversation ended too soon.

Climate of Opinion: How ‘Semi-Tropical’ Made a New Nature for Southern California

L.A. once sold its climate as "semi-tropical" – a term that emphasized the uniqueness of its nature. Semi-tropical was semi-miraculous.

Developers with rancho land to sell were eager to recast the environment of Southern California to imply warmth and lushness but not a steamy jungle. In Southern California’s embrace, every tropical crop – from bananas to passion fruit – would flourish without the health (and moral) risks of life in the actual tropics. And Anglo Californians would flourish too, in a newly “semi-tropical” nature. (Click the navigation arrow for more)

Fan Leaf Plam, ca. 1890

Fan Leaf Plam, ca. 1890

Flappers and Indians in the Dream City of 1928: How the Jazz Age Ended in Long Beach

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, presiding over a long economic boom. George Cryer was mayor of Los Angeles, taking orders from the “City Hall Gang” of bootleggers, gamblers, and grafters. In Long Beach, after two months of hectic frivolity, the Jazz Age was about to end with a crash.

The Dream City was supposed to commemorate the founding of Spanish California in 1769. How minarets and camel rides symbolized the arrival of the Spanish was left unexplained. Authenticity was served by the real silks and silver bangles on “native girls” recruited from Long Beach women’s clubs and the presence of reservation Hopi and Navajos displayed in front of a plaster pueblo. (Click the navigation arrow for more)

The image of the Pacific Southwest Exposition of 1928 blended Spanish California with Tunisian minarets.

The image of the Pacific Southwest Exposition of 1928 blended Spanish California with Tunisian minarets.

Border Medicine: Doctors, Disease, and Health Seekers in L.A.

At the border of three worldviews – native, colonial, and Anglo – medical care in Los Angeles by the 1850s blended empirical science, European and native folk traditions, and a large dose of medical hucksterism.

Anglo physicians in the mid-19th century racialized a way out of the paradox that Southern California was toxic for Native Americans and mixed-race Latinos but could be a tonic for Americans suffering from tuberculosis, chronic illness, or nervous exhaustion. Doctors successfully sold the idea that debilitated office workers and traumatized Civil War veterans became newly well and thrived in the reviving sunshine of Los Angeles while other races, under the same sun, grew lazy and declined into physical or moral sickness.

What finally made Southern California healthful … were its new possessors. The virtues of the environment could only be realized … under an Anglo sun. Health “is not across the ocean or upon some foreign shore, where the invalid is an alien or a stranger, but within our own land, under our own flag, and among our own people.” Los Angeles became a city of healing for sick Americans when Los Angeles was made white. (Click the navigation arrow for more)

How the All-Year Club Sold the L.A. Summer

Summer travel to Los Angeles benefited from a new belief in the revitalizing power of summer sunlight. Pale complexions were on the way out; tans were in, and swimsuits in the 1920s began to show more and more skin. Photograph courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Summer travel to Los Angeles benefited from a new belief in the revitalizing power of summer sunlight. Pale complexions were on the way out; tans were in, and swimsuits in the 1920s began to show more and more skin. Photograph courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Summer came late to Southern California. Its invention had begun much earlier in the East. In 1861, the first summer camp opened in Connecticut. By 1875, the urban well-to-do were fleeing to cool Adirondack lodges. Eventually, there were more than 200 of them. In the 1880s, New York’s sweltering masses could ride the elevated trains to Coney Island and sit on the crowded sand.

In those turn-of-the-century summers, a young Sarah Bixby Smith walked along the four miles of broad, level shore below the bluffs at today’s Long Beach. Her beach was deserted, except for family picnics. “There were gulls and many little shore birds,” she remembered, “and never a footprint except the few we made, only to be washed away by the next tide.”

Southern California before World War I was principally a winter destination for well-to-do tourists, a January to April sort of place, where the elderly, the rheumatic, and the tubercular sheltered from Eastern damp and cold in the warmth of Redlands, Pasadena, or Monrovia. Hotels and resorts made money when New England shivered through another blizzard, but monied tourists avoided the heat and glare of Los Angeles in August.

Real L.A. Noir: The Case of the Buried Blonde

Gloria Graves was, for a season, the “Beautiful Girl Buried Alive” at the end of the Ocean Park pier.

Her handlers included Mr. Q, a name he used as a vaudeville performer. The other name he used was Robert Godwin. He was one of those mind-over-matter, higher-consciousness hucksters who regularly turned up in L.A. to make a few bucks from the gullible or the bored. Godwin stuck the title Dr. on his name and called himself a hypnotist. Maybe he was too. He had a look that could etch glass. He had a strange way with women. You’ve probably guessed that he’s dead before this story is done.

Mr. Q exhibited Gloria as the “Beautiful Girl Buried Alive” for a dime a look down a long shaft that opened over Gloria’s almost pretty face and conventionally blond hair, shining in the glare of an electric light.

Gloria Graves sleeps in her coffin.

Gloria Graves sleeps in her coffin.

You could have seen on any street in Hollywood the same face and hair repeated a hundred times for free. That didn’t stop the customers from paying ten cents and peering at the girl lying below in her coffin.

The curious could shout questions down to her, and she would answer. She had a nice voice.

What Happened in L.A. During the Civil War?

Civil War-era Los Angeles was a frontier town that was barely beginning to grow into a city.

The American Civil War and Los Angeles might seem worlds apart. The conflict, after all, was fought between North and South; Los Angeles was in the distant West. It was fought over the issue of slavery; California was (officially) a free state. Tensions between northern and southern states had been simmering for decades; Los Angeles had only been recently been wrested from Mexico.


Nevertheless, the horrors of war nearly came to Los Angeles as the rebellion inflamed passions in distant Southern California. For a time, it seemed that Southern sympathizers might capture Los Angeles for the Confederacy, or that California might secede from the Union, form an independent "Pacific Republic," and declare neutrality.

'We Have Been and Are Yet Secessionist' – Los Angeles When the Civil War Began

Secessionist city officials, armed conspirators, and Confederate recruiters made Los Angeles ripe for conflict in 1861,

The shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor started on Friday, April 12, 1861. The Civil War had begun.

In Los Angeles, where the news would arrive almost two weeks later, an Army captain – sole representative of the United States military – waited in an adobe warehouse at the edge of the city. Army muskets, ammunition, and cavalry sabers had been hidden under sacks of oats and flour. He had shown his wife where the pistols were kept. Together, they would make some defense of the Army’s stores when the secessionist “Monte boys” came to take them.

Captain Winfield Scott Hancock expected that a raid on his warehouse would start the annexation of Southern California to the secessionist cause. He believed that many Angeleños would welcome it.

The spirit of disunion grew worse in Southern California while Captain Hancock and his wife waited through the first three weeks of April. He surrounded the Army storehouse in Los Angeles with the high-walled wagons that hauled military freight. He collected enough pistols at his home to arm “a few loyal friends.” Among the few likely to stand with him were District Attorney Ezra Drown, rancher and pro-Union polemicist Jonathan Warner, publisher Charles Conway of the Semi-Weekly Southern News, and Los Angeles port operator Phineas Banning.

The spirit of disunion grew worse in Southern California, kept active by the editor of the Los Angeles Star.

The spirit of disunion grew worse in Southern California, kept active by the editor of the Los Angeles Star.

The Enchanted House

Porter Ranch Road, 2003  by Larry Sultan from the series  The Valley.  Photograph courtesy of Larry Sultan Estate

Porter Ranch Road, 2003 by Larry Sultan from the series The Valley. Photograph courtesy of Larry Sultan Estate

I often daydream of houses, and I think Larry Sultan did too. Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher of the spaces of our lives, insisted that daydreams of home — of any place of desire and loss — require shelter. He also said, “to be housed is to dream.”

Porter Ranch Road, 2003 might almost be an annotation to Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. As Bachelard believed, as Vermeer showed and as Larry Sultan shows, a home is both a body of images and an anticipatory space. Every house contains a daydream of its future as much as a memory of its past. The chair in the vacant room improvises a sitter; the doorway, a hesitant trespasser; the staircase, a trysting couple, and above them, a bedroom, a bed.

As much as we might try — by critical analysis or real estate speculation — no house is ever entirely disenchanted. We feel the house in this photograph is haunting itself, just as all houses, when temporarily empty, are haunted by themselves. We might also say that this corridor, staircase, and inner room persist in dreaming for us when we’re away, when we remember again those places in a house we knew or think we knew. Read more.

Horrible Catastrophe!

Disaster in Civil-War-Era Los Angeles

On a blustery Monday afternoon in the spring of 1863, a small, steam-powered tender passed down the tidal creek that led from New San Pedro to the deepwater anchorage where the side-wheel steamship “Senator” waited. Earlier that afternoon, the “Senator” had received a consignment of freight from the tender. Now the “Ada Hancock” was returning with passengers bound for San Francisco. The little vessel was crowded with 50 or more adults and children.

Albert Sidney Johnston, Jr., the 17-year-old son of Confederate General A. S. Johnston, was on board, perhaps considering if he would join the war that had killed his father the year before. Louis Schlesinger, a Los Angeles merchant, had business interests that required the three-day trip to San Francisco as did Maximilian Strobel, one of the founders of the Anaheim colony.

Hiram Kimball and Thomas Atkinson, Mormon missionaries, were on their way from Salt Lake City to Hawai’i. Lumberman William Waddell was returning home to Santa Cruz. Henry Oliver was returning to San Francisco with stock certificates and documents connected to his Arizona mining investments.

Fred Kerlin, employed at the Tejon Reservation, carried $30,000 in paper currency. William Ritchie, a messenger for Well Fargo & Company, watched over a strongbox with $11,000 in gold dust from the Arizona mines and $575 in coins and bank notes.

Maria de Jesus Wilson and Medora Hereford.   Medora (right) was the sister of the second wife of Benjamin Davis Wilson. Maria was Wilson’s daughter by his first wife, Ramona Yorba. Both Maria and Medora were aboard the  Ada Hancock . Photograph courtesy of the B. D. Wilson Family Collection, Huntington Library

Maria de Jesus Wilson and Medora Hereford. Medora (right) was the sister of the second wife of Benjamin Davis Wilson. Maria was Wilson’s daughter by his first wife, Ramona Yorba. Both Maria and Medora were aboard the Ada Hancock. Photograph courtesy of the B. D. Wilson Family Collection, Huntington Library

How the Daughters of Charity Brought Social Services to 1800s L.A.

Until the Daughters arrived in 1856, L.A. offered few social services for the sick, the poor, and the orphaned.

Los Angeles was a flea-bitten, murderous, mean little town in the early 1850s. Rancho beef went north to the gold fields; gold came south to be gambled on horse races and cards or spent on Chinese silk and Manila embroidery or paid out for fandangos that filled whole days with dancing.

In the saloons and brothels that fronted on the city’s unlighted dirt streets, aguardiente – “ardent water” (wine distilled into white lighting) – fueled so many deadly brawls among cattle drovers and vaqueros that Los Angeles was possibly the most violent city in America.

In fact, it was barely a city even in mid-19th century terms. There were no hospitals and no services for the orphaned or abandoned. Genuine piety was on daily display, but charity was a family matter. In a town filling with Anglo strangers after sleepy colonial decades, to be helpless and alone was a curse. When periodic epidemics of smallpox and cholera swept through the town in the early 1850s, the sick were quarantined in a wretched “pest house” or were nursed by boarding house proprietors paid so much a head by the county.

St. Vincent’s Hospital, about 1900.  In 1883, The Daughters of Charity purchased land in   Beaudry Park   at a cost of $10,000 and erected a new hospital building a year later. In 1918, the hospital was renamed St. Vincent’s Hospital. Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

St. Vincent’s Hospital, about 1900. In 1883, The Daughters of Charity purchased land in Beaudry Park at a cost of $10,000 and erected a new hospital building a year later. In 1918, the hospital was renamed St. Vincent’s Hospital. Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Laurel Canyon Suite: Gods, Myths, and Fires

The canyon's millennia-long history reveals a complicated and dark mythology.

The myth also involves sex and murder. But there are gods in the story and glory of a kind near the end. In one version, the myth begins with a girl – pretty, well-connected, high strung (they would have said; today, that she had gender issues). This version ends with a divine musician and a laurel tree. But the myth doesn’t end there, or, rather, the story has neither a beginning nor an end, only further renditions – sometimes melancholy and bluesy, sometimes raucous and lowdown, sometimes elegant and lingering – making the myth even more dreamlike, harder to place. Think of the myth as an album on the theme of longing; just as predictably for Los Angeles, desire for undying beauty and youth. More

Los Angeles from Grandview Drive, 1951.  Seen from the hills above Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the street grid of mid-century Los Angeles glows. Photograph courtesy of Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries

Los Angeles from Grandview Drive, 1951. Seen from the hills above Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the street grid of mid-century Los Angeles glows. Photograph courtesy of Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries

The Problem of Profitable Leisure: Bringing Chautauqua to Los Angeles

TED Talks of the late 1800s: When the Chautauqua movement came to California

By the thousands, between 1881 and 1940, vacationers who called themselves Chautauquans gathered for a summer week or two at rustic campgrounds in the canyons of Pacific Palisades and along the beaches of Venice, Long Beach, and Redondo Beach. They were drawn there by a national movement of progressive Protestants that idealized learning but also offered entertainment, uplift, and healthy outdoor recreation.

Chautauquans were fiercely proud of their name, which bound them to the “mother Chautauqua” in upstate New York. Their movement was born in 1874 at Chautauqua Lake and began as a summer training program for Methodist Sunday school teachers – origins that reappeared in the campgrounds that “daughter Chautauquas” established in Los Angeles (and elsewhere in California) in the 1880s. An appreciation of nature, some proximity to water, and a spirit of Methodist belief linked the Chautauquan source to the Los Angeles summer camps and to what became dozens of local Chautauqua reading circles.

Chautauqua was many things to its members. It was a home study course that, if followed over four years, gave graduates the breadth of a liberal arts education.It was a weekly meeting of Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle members where readings in the home study course were discussed, guided by instructions and questionnaires in the monthly Chautauquan magazine. And it was an opportunity to spend a few days each summer with other Chautauquans while attending lectures, performances, and discussions in an outdoor setting. More

Graduates, 1890.  These graduates of the educational program of the Saratoga Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle at Pacific Grove are holding their honorary diplomas. Photograph courtesy of the Saratoga Historical Foundation and Saratoga History Museum

Graduates, 1890. These graduates of the educational program of the Saratoga Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle at Pacific Grove are holding their honorary diplomas. Photograph courtesy of the Saratoga Historical Foundation and Saratoga History Museum

Draw, Stud, and Hold’em: A Brief History of Poker in LA

Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Although hardly anything remains of the era when California was the terminal part of the Old West, one survivor of those wide-open days lingers. Around tables in shiny casinos and seedy cardrooms in more than 140 cities, poker players eye the competition, calculate the odds, and still reach for cards that will make – or break – their luck.

Poker was a western game from its beginnings in New Orleans in the first decade of the 1800s through its spread further west by riverboat gamblers. Poker’s fast pace was made for California’s Gold Rush camps, where sudden wealth and loss were facts of camp life after 1849. “California is the place where poker has been most favorably received and industriously cultivated as a science,” wrote historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1888, who wrote about all the ways in which gambling had shaped the experience of California.

But the poker player knows science isn’t enough. “Luck is his religion,” Bancroft added, “and in it he is a firm believer and devotee. There is but one thing certain about it however, and that is sooner or later it will change. To know when this point is reached is the sum of all knowledge.” More

A Walk Along Long Beach’s Gaudy, Tawdry, Bawdy Pike

The Pike was one of Southern California's largest playgrounds by the sea.

On July 4, 1902, the Los Angeles “rabble” arrived, crowding on a new line that quickly became the PE’s most profitable. Many of the visitors that summer headed for Charles Drake’s Long Beach Bath House, with its 60-by-120-foot concrete pool, specially designed Ladies Plunge, men’s and women’s dressing rooms, Casino Café, and bowling alley. There were band concerts every afternoon and evening but, as the proprietors carefully pointed out, no liquor.

By 1906, Drake’s Long Beach Bath House and Amusement Company had bought up much of the oceanfront below Pine Avenue and leased the land to lunch counters, a fortuneteller, candy and popcorn stands, a roller rink, and a shooting gallery. They were connected by a 12-foot-wide boardwalk that led to the colonnaded pool building. “All along this particular portion of the beach,” wrote a reporter for the Evening Tribune, “stands the row of stands, some of quaint design, and an interesting sight to the tourist. It is here that the hot tamale vender, the peanut crisp man and the pretty girls who sell sweets of all kinds, find a living for themselves.” More

Photograph courtesy of Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Photograph courtesy of Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Interpreter of Dreams: On the Passing of Kevin Starr

California historian and former state librarian Kevin Starr has died.

Starr accepted the convention that the idea of California would forever be connected to dreams, with the implication that Californian longing was merely a dream, merely desire without substance. But Starr’s use of “the dream” – as something that might be manifested by Californian desire – was his way of secularizing another aspect of his faith – his Catholic belief in the incarnation, in the mystery of the divine turned into flesh, or, as one of the titles in his California history series puts it, in the realization of “material dreams.” More

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

This Jewish Pioneer Chronicled a Changing L.A. from 1853 to 1913

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Los Angeles was a city made of mud – of adobe, which is dried mud – when Harris Newmark arrived in 1853. He had come to California, as many did in the mid-19th century, for something better than his birthplace, better than his life in Löbau in Prussia (now Lubawa, Poland), better than working for his father in the manufacture of ink and boot blacking to be wholesaled to retailers in Denmark and Sweden, and better than sales trips in miserable weather on poor roads or over rougher seas. Newmark was just 19; of course he was willing to leave when his older brother wrote from Los Angeles offering him passage money. More

Retailing in Old LA: Dripping Tar, Imaginary Coins, Whiskey, and Horse Blankets

Photograph courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Digital Library

Photograph courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Digital Library

Shopping in old Los Angeles was not easy, pleasant, or cheap.

Stores in 1850s Los Angeles were small, half-lighted from the crookedness of the town’s street plan, with a Colt’s revolver under the sales counter against the town’s terrible violence. When night fell, stores were shuttered against theft and riot with stout panels of cast iron. Shopping in old Los Angeles was not easy, pleasant, or cheap.

Laura Eversten King, writing in 1900, described the town’s shopping district as “two or three streets whose business centered in a few tiendas, or stores, decorated with strings of chilis or jerked beef. The one window of each tienda was barred with iron, the tiendero sitting in the doorway to protect his wares, or to watch for customers. Sidewalks were unknown. Pedestrians marched single file in the middle of the street, in winter to enjoy the sunshine, in summer to escape the trickling tears of brea [tar] which, dropping from the roofs, branded their linen or clogged their footsteps.” More

The Invention of Southern California's Spanish Fantasy Past

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license

Helen Hunt Jackson – misunderstood romantic, misremembered advocate of Native American rights – lingered some weeks in Los Angeles between December 1881 and the end of January 1882, on assignment for The Century Magazine to write about Southern California as a destination for adventurous tourists. She apparently came with a larger purpose than a series of travel sketches, although her purpose was never fully realized. The seductive power of an invented past, created by rival mythmakers seeking to preserve their place in newly American Los Angeles, made her plan a failure and Helen Hunt Jackson famous. More